Where to begin with Systems Thinking and Complex Systems

I recently asked Matt Nish Lapidus on some direction on systems thinking and or designing for larger complex systems and wondered if anyone else had any thoughts or ideas on where to to begin. I’ve sort of crossed the threshold where the tools and frameworks for usability, interaction design and user experience design work on enclosed systems but aren’t well suited for big picture thinking. I’m familiar with experience maps and having been using them to hit cross channel designs but lets go deeper!

Shigeo Katsura

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Hey Shigeo

Resmini and Rosati’s “Pervasive Information Architecture” is a good place to start. If you’re looking for something more high level, some of the most interesting systems thinking I’ve seen lately comes from Lean (not lean startup, but lean thinking and systems theory). Check out Dave Snowden’s work, and his company Cognitive Edge. He has a great model called Cynefin that helps understand systems via domains (simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, disorderly), which I have found really useful. If you’re looking to go even more high level, see Actor-Netork Theory (Bruno Latour, John Law, et al). Latour especially articulates how human and non-human actants exist within complex systems.


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Hi Shigeo,

If you want to dig deeper into how to engage with systems, here are a couple of decent and in-depth entry points that I would recommend:

  • The Fifth Discipline - The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Peter Senge)
  • Systems Thinking, Systems Practice (Peter Checkland)

One of the fields that has done the best work in thinking about how to act with, and in complex systems is the domain of warfare. I consider “Warfighting” (http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/mcdp1.pdf) to be one of the best pieces of writing on the subject - it’s an incredibly succint and insightful piece, and worth reading, even if you disagree with the context of the ideas.

Another great read (and heavily informed by the domain of cybernetics) is the “Little Grey Book” that Paul Pangaro, Hugh Dubberly and others worked on in the early 00’s. (http://pangaro.com/littlegreybook.pdf). We’ve referred to it extensively over the years as we’ve thought about the design of our own business at Normative. Highly recommended.

Part of the challenge of learning about “systems thinking” is that it isn’t a single field, and you can’t improve your understanding of systems by adopting and practicing a single viewpoint or set of tools. The best way I can describe how I’ve come to think about systems work is that good systems thinking is a reflexive, learning mindset that recognizes that an answer will never be found, but that understanding always increases. I believe the act of modeling is more valuable than the model itself. This may not be a popular view, but it’s been very helpful for me.

My recommendation for going deeper into the world of systems thinking; read lots of different perspectives on systems “thinking” and let them start to fit together into a systems mindset that works for you. The best way to get good answers it to ask good questions, and I can’t think of a better application of this idea then the practice of thinking about systems.

And have fun, this is exciting stuff and well worth your time!




Donella Meadows “Leverage Points” is a classic on where you can most effectively intervene in a system. It is one I go back to over and over!

Available here: http://www.donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/

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Also happens that the Systems Thinking and Design conference is happening now in Olso. Ahh, to be in Oslo.

What are some ways to connect people back to the system at play?

Seems teams get caught up in the details or their roles but dont always have the time to navigate to the systems around them and the implications on their work.


I really appreciate the replies everyone, I’m pretty excited. I’ll have lots to sink my teeth into for the next two months. More questions to come soon!

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